Every year since the West Coast Conference basketball tournament moved to Orleans Arena in 2009, Gonzaga has played Saint Mary’s in the championship game.
That is certain to change in this year’s tournament, which begins with two opening-round games today and concludes with the title game Tuesday night.
The two perennial WCC powers are on the same side of the bracket and will play in Monday’s semifinals if seeding holds.
Brigham Young (21-10, 13-5 WCC), which has the No. 2 seed and sits on the opposite side of the bracket, certainly hopes to be the team to crash the championship game party, though it would break recent precedent. Should the Cougars reach that game and win, it would be the first conference tournament title for the program since 2001.
“I think a lot of people on the outside talk about it, but our team doesn’t talk much about it,” BYU coach Dave Rose said Wednesday about the program’s drought, which began four years before he took the job. “I do think the guys talk about, ‘Hey, we have a chance here to do something that hasn’t been done for a while,’ but the most important thing I believe is to focus on that first game.”
BYU will open play in the quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the winner of today’s 6 p.m. opening-round game between Portland (15-15, 7-11) and Loyola Marymount (12-18, 4-14). Pacific (15-14, 6-12) will play Santa Clara (13-18, 6-12) at 8:30 tonight, with the winner drawing top-seeded Gonzaga (25-6, 15-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
It might not be the same Bulldogs side that won the event a year ago and parlayed that success into a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but Gonzaga is still the team to beat.
Rose said any notion Gonzaga is down could only be due to the bar being set so high.
“Maybe they’re a little bit down from (being a top seed in the NCAA Tournament), but they’re really good,” Rose said. “Mark (Few, the coach) has not only got himself a good team, he’s got a great program. Their front line is big, active and skilled. The talent at the guard line is really deep. They’ve got three or four guards who can do everything and then a couple of guys who are great specialists. He’s got himself a really good team, and someone’s going to have to play really well to beat them.”
The Bulldogs have been to 16 straight WCC tournament title games, winning 11.
BYU, which split with Gonzaga in the regular season, hopes to make sure that doesn’t become 12. The Cougars will rely on a potent offense that averages 85.0 points and boasts four double-digit scorers, led by Tyler Haws at 23.4 points per game, to help break the drought.
Guard Anson Winder, a junior from Bishop Gorman, has been a part of both BYU teams that have come up short in the WCC tournament since the program departed the Mountain West.
In their first year in the league, the Cougars defeated San Diego before being eliminated by Gonzaga in the semifinals. Last year, BYU was upset by San Diego in the quarterfinals.
“It’s kind of known around the program that we haven’t won a conference tournament in a while,” Winder said. “We’ve been to some championship games in the Mountain West but haven’t won. It would be a great way to end the season. We know we can do it.”
Winder has experience winning a tournament on the floor at Orleans Arena. He was part of the 2009 team at Gorman that defeated Palo Verde for the state title in the same building.
This year, he is averaging a career-best 6.1 points, including a career-high 22-point effort against Mount St. Mary’s in November.
“I just try to come in and provide a spark in whatever ways I can and do what I can to help us win,” he said. “I’m excited about the role and about coming to Vegas to try to help my team. My family is ready. They’ve got their tickets and everything. They can’t wait for Saturday to come.”
Rose said Winder has been a key part of BYU’s strong second half of the season. After starting 8-7, the Cougars won 13 of their final 16 games.
“Anson has been so good for us over the years, and right now he’s playing his best basketball since he’s been here,” Rose said. “I think defensively on the perimeter he’s really added length and size for us, and offensively he’s really opportunistic with his ability to attack the rim and get to the free-throw line, where he’s been really good.
“He’s played really well, especially lately, and I think he’s given us a great boost.”
A new championship game will not be the only thing different about this year’s tournament. The conference has gone away from its familiar double-bye for the top two seeds and will utilize a more traditional bracket with the addition of a 10th team in Pacific.
Also on Saturday, San Francisco (20-10, 13-5) will play San Diego (16-15, 7-11) at noon, and Saint Mary’s (21-10, 11-7) will meet Pepperdine (15-15, 8-10) at 8:30 p.m.
Tonight’s games will air live on BYUtv (Cable 352).
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.